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Dublin: 7°C Thursday 22 April 2021
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Johnny Ward: 'Mesmerising' Curragh redevelopment gives Flat racing a home to be proud of

Johnny Ward pays a visit to the redeveloped track ahead of its opening meeting on 6 May.

The Curragh: redevelopment was initially projected to cost €65m.
The Curragh: redevelopment was initially projected to cost €65m.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IF YOU BUILD it, the Curragh hopes at least, they will come.

On Wednesday, members of the press were treated to coffee, croissants and the Curragh of 2019. Generally we are a cynical bunch, yet there was barely a murmur of dissatisfaction.

This was a place that evokes images of horses gathering a thousand years ago, a place that belonged to another era too. So dilapidated it had become, on rainy days they summoned buckets to deal with leaks.

Derek McGrath came in as CEO with an impressive CV, having played for Ireland and worked as Chief Executive of the European Rugby Cup for over a decade. But Irish caps do not mean people will come racing at the Curragh and he has had to embrace a culture of indifference among locals that does not sit well in Irish racing.

Curragh Ltd, the body made up of one-third shares between private investors, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board which ran the Curragh until 2015, and the State through Horse Racing Ireland, have not revealed a final cost for the redevelopment – and the only certainty is that it overran. Initially projected to cost €65 million, it is expected it will cost closer to €90 million, a figure increased because they initially made the parade ring too small.

“We would certainly be looking to significantly increase our numbers,” McGrath told journalists, without being too specific. “We have targeted numbers. With the facility that we have, we have an ambition to build the number and build what we hope will be a loyal group.

“Some of the research would suggest that maybe 80% of your audience come racing just once per year, so there is a lot of acquisition to be done and there’s a lot of effort to be made to get people to come racing.

“If we can build by 20%, that’s going to improve the return and that’s the type of activity we’ll be building towards.”

The challenge for the Curragh is that people have stopped going there and it is not easy to entice them back. However, the work done to make the home of the Flat on Ireland worthy of its stature is genuinely mesmerising and basically wipes the floor with anything done elsewhere in Ireland.

The corporate suites remind one of an especially swanky airport lounge and everyday racegoers have an excellent view from the grandstand, which is designed with the fact that the Derby day is a one-off in terms of attendance figures.

And that is where the Curragh seems to have succeeded. Whereas the Derby might attract 20,000 people this year if properly marketed, most days at this course do not attract anything like that crowd – yet it will feel compact for the smaller fixtures and that is a significant achievement. You will not feel alone.

There is one thing missing. Up until the summer of 2005, when racing took place at the Curragh, the train would stop at the Curragh when racing took place. The racecourse was once served by two railway stations: Curragh Mainline on the main Dublin–Cork line, which opened in 1846, and Curragh Racecourse at the end of a short branch to the grandstand, which opened in 1875.

Imagine being able to get on at Heuston Station on racedays and be in the parade ring 40 minutes later? The re-opening of the Curragh station is something Iarnrod Eireann is open to discussing.

Spokesperson Jane Cregan told The42: ”Under the National Development investment programme on railways, we would not be in a position to finance this, but if there were third-party interest in an investment, in terms of upgrading the facility, we would be willing to talk to them about it.”

Essentially it should only involve the return of a station that would operate on racedays, but Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh contends that it could serve a greater purpose.

“I think it should get strong consideration as part of a next phase of the Curragh redevelopment,” he said. “Obviously it would involve discussions with Iarnrod Eireann as the Curragh station has been unused for many years and would undoubtedly require remedial works. That said, there would be benefits on non-racedays with the potential for a Park and Ride facility for the many Kildare-based commuters to Dublin every day.”

People like to enjoy themselves at the races and the Curragh being overwhelmingly reliant on racegoers driving there is far from ideal. Kavanagh added: “There would be a huge benefit of accessibility by train for racegoers and not just from Dublin as the rail line services or is easily connected with many other routes around the country. Many racecourses such as Ascot, Sandown, Flemington and Arlington benefit greatly from having railway access and in recent years we have seen more and more racegoers using the Luas service to access Leopardstown.

“Not only was there a station at the Curragh on the mainline, but also a siding which meant that raceday trains could come right up to the rear of the stands at the Curragh.”

There is something magical about the sepia-coloured railway excursion advertisements you see in pubs occasionally. The notion of a chartered train from Dublin to the Curragh, from Galway to the Curragh, from Limerick to the Curragh and from Cork to the Curragh on Derby day would be a big seller.

Perhaps it is optimistic – but the success of the Curragh in its magnificent new state could reach another level altogether if people have the vision to embrace something that would not only take the experience to another level but would benefit the environment in terms of taking cars and buses off the road.

The crowd the Irish National will get on Monday will remind us that jumps racing remains the Irish fan’s preferred pursuit. Before that, take a chance on The Big Lense for Gordon Elliott in Sunday’s YR Sauce Novice Handicap Hurdle (2.20pm).

Will they have YR sauce at the Curragh when it begins a defining chapter on 6 May? They have pretty much everything else. It is up to the people as to whether they care enough or not.

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Johnny Ward

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